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Monday, 9 October 2017

Dark echoes

Reading my western Coffin for Cash, you might think there is the odd echo or two from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. And you’d be right.

The Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles westerns were created by Edward A. Grainger, who has generously allowed other writers to embellish his characters’ lives in separate self-contained novels. They are noir westerns, so I believed it would be fitting to absorb some aspects of Poe for Coffin for Cash, the twelfth book in the series.

To begin with, I wanted to start the story with a life-threatening event for Cash Laramie. Finding himself buried alive seemed to fit the bill. The Prologue then, inevitably, has the title Premature Burial. Poe’s short story ‘The Premature Burial’ was published in 1844.

Poe’s 1835 story ‘Berenice’ is one of the few tales where the narrator is named; director Eric Rohmer made a short film of Poe’s story in 1954. Berenice is the narrator’s cousin and she is buried alive. Chapter 1 of Coffin is titled Berenice: Berenice Rohmer, an heiress who seeks the help of Cash in locating her missing brother, Horace.

“Hello, Marshal Laramie,” Berenice Rohmer said as he approached. She looked at him, her golden brown eyes shining brightly, appraising. Boldly, he returned her scrutiny. She was probably in her mid-twenties, buxom, curves pressing alluringly against the green velvet jacket; a matching hat sat askew atop her long red hair that was done up and tamed by jewelled pins. Beneath the skirt, her legs were crossed; she wore black lace-up boots with a high heel. Thin pale red lips parted slightly and then finally formed into a smile.(p4)

Gideon Miles is Cash’s closest friend. He’s at Fort Bridger to escort an accused murderer for trial, Vincent Raven, a black settler. Raven has been accused of murdering the postmaster, Mr Edgar Clemm. A local lawyer, Rufus Wilmot, saw Raven standing over the body.

Poe married his first cousin Virginia Clemm in 1835 – he was 27, she was 13 though the documentation stated she was 21. Virginia’s mother, Maria Clemm (née Poe), lived with the couple. Their relationship has been debated over the years: was it ever sexual, or were they living virtually as brother and sister? Nobody knows. I melded Poe with Clemm; it seemed apt. As for Wilmot, I decided to use Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s first two names; anthologist and editor Griswold was castigated by Poe the critic and yet perplexingly Poe chose him as his executor. After Poe’s death Griswold attempted with some success to destroy Poe’s reputation, yet hindsight confirms that Poe is remembered through his work while Griswold is not.

By now, you can see that several influences or names permeated the writing of Coffin. Chapter 2 is titled Raven. Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845.

“Well, sadly for Raven, he was found in the town’s post office standing over the slain postmaster, Mr Edgar Clemm. Packets of opium were strewn about. He denies it, naturally, but the postmaster was still warm, according to a lawyer, Rufus Wilmot, who entered moments later. Sheriff Arnold Royster brought Raven here for protective custody, before he could be lynched. There’s bad feeling about him in the town, as well; Mr Clemm was a greatly liked citizen of Green River.”(p11)

The sheriff is named after Sarah Elmira Royster who was Poe’s sweetheart, but they became estranged, until years later she was engaged to Poe shortly before his death; she may have influenced his work.

Cash’s trail leads to The Bells, a strange hotel run by a brother and sister team, Roderick and Madeline Allan, who keep a black cat. ‘The Bells’ was one of Poe’s last poems, published in 1849 after his death; ‘The Black Cat’ short story was published in 1843. Coffin echoes the theme found in this story. The name Roderick is high-jacked from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839); Roderick Usher has a twin sister, Madeline.

In Chapter 6 titled Amontillado, we find that there is a Monsieur Valdemar staying at the hotel; he supplies the establishment with wine. Poe’s stories ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ (1846) and ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845) lent themselves to the plot and characters.

The chapter headings Pendulum and Pit and Tell-Tale Heart owe their existence to Poe, too. There are several other allusions to Poe’s life and work; none dominate the story, which is essentially a gothic western.

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